Our Daily Bread

If “State Fair” and “The Life of Jimmy Dolan” evoked nostalgically a simpler, decent rural life, King Vidor's “Our Daily Bread” was a harsher and more important film, both artistically and ideologically. Its production, exhibition, and reception are instructive in the insights they offer about the possibilities of independent filmmaking within the Hollywood studio system.

Prior to “Our Daily Bread,” Vidor made another agrarian romance, “The Stranger's Return,” a little-known and underestimated film, based on Phil Stong's screenplay. Conventional in narrative structure and production values, it is the story of a young woman (Miriam Hopkins), recently separated from her husband, who leaves the city and goes to her grandfather's (Lionel Barrymore) farm, where she finds real roots and true love, a college-graduate turned farmer (Franchot Tone).

Vidor found the nucleus for the narrative of “Our Daily Bread” in a Readers' Digest article written by an economics professor, wherein he proposed the organization of co-operatives as a solution to the unemployment problem. Vidor conceived of his film as a second treatment of the lives of John and Mary, “the average American man and woman.

At the film's start, the unemployed John pawns his guitar for a chicken. He claims he does not want favors, “just the chance to work.” When he and Mary inherit a broken-down farm, they leave the city, determined to make it work. But John soon realizes he lacks the necessary knowledge, so he hires a Swedish farmer and advertises for workers. Many people show up, and John selects those who would be most useful to the farm.

Vidor shows, in a series of impressive long shots, the joy of people building their cooperative. This includes various collective celebrations: constructing living quarters, ploughing and planting the fields, dancing and singing. The members complement each other in skills: the carpenter builds a wooden frame for the stonemason, while the latter builds the carpenter's chimney.

However, the narrative resorts to melodramatics in its juxtaposition of the two women: Mary, usually dressed in white, and the City girl, the outsider (Barbara Pepper), a sexy blonde dressed in black. The City (Other) Woman spends most of her time indoors, smoking and listening to jazz records. A threat to the marital union, she is soon asked to leave. Meanwhile, a drought demoralizes everybody, and John, in a moment of weakness, decides to leave the commune with the seductive woman. But his conscience bothers him and, haunted by the image of a criminal who earlier gave himself up so that the community could collect a reward, he decides to go back. In the film's climax, water comes through the ditch and the members throw themselves into the mud.

Some elements of the plot had already appeared in Murnau's silent masterpiece “Sunrise” (1927), which also used conceptual types. The two major characters, “The Man” (George O'Brien) and “The Wife” (Janet Gaynor) stand in for every man and woman. Content with the security of their farm, they live a happy life, apart from the turmoil of the city. But one day, a City woman (Margaret Livingstone) appears in their village and seduces the husband to leave his farm. She almost persuades him to drown his wife, but he repents and goes back to her. The three protagonists embody abstract forces: “the Man,” as the strong provider; “the Wife,” as the fragile and devoted wife-mother, and “the Woman from the City,” as the seductress, all flesh and carnal desire.

“Our Daily Bread” advocates self-sacrifice and suppression of individualistic (selfish) goals for the sake of nobler collectivist goals. The escaped convict, who becomes the commune's policeman, decides to surrender so that his reward will be collected by the cooperative. Nominally, the form of government is democratic, though the film shows the members' dependency on John's charismatic leadership. A figure modeled on F.D. Roosevelt, John is not an elected but acclimated leader.

The film abounds with John's patriotic speeches to his followers. In one, he uses the Mayflower pilgrims to rally the group: “When they arrived on the continent, what did they do Stand around and beef about the unemployment situation or the value of the dollar No. They set to work to make their own employment, build their own houses, and grow their own food.” “If they got along without landlords and grocery bills,” he concludes, “so can we. What we've got to do is help ourselves by helping others. We've got the land and we've got the strength.” John is the commune's owner and leader–the film stops short of advocating collectivist ownership of the land.

“Our Daily Bread” never resolves the tension between individualistic leadership and collectivist values. Every member seems to agree that John is the natural leader, as the Swedish farmer puts is: “All I know is ve got a big job, eh, and we need a Big Boss. And Yohn zims is the man for the Boss.”

“Our Daily Bread” is at once naive and utopian. In mode, the film adheres to doctrine of socialist realism, focusing on social types, rather than individual characters, and on everyday behavior of ordinary people. Significantly, the two leads were played by actors who were not stars, and other roles featured unknown or non-professional actors.

In visual style, “Our Daily Bread” draws on the work of Soviet filmmakers Eisenstein and Pudovkin. The film's climax, the construction of the irrigation system, is staged as a conscious tribute to Eisenstein's montage theory. Vidor treated the building the ditch “in a manner I imagined a choreographer would use in plotting out the movements of a ballet,” thus orchestrating every move of the barrier's opening and the rush of water. It was the longest scene to film, taking ten days of rehearsal and shooting. For sound, Vidor used a metronome and a bass drum, and composer Alfred Newman wrote rhythmical tempos.

Vidor's earnest sincerity and straightforward treatment lend the picture some charm, if not credibility. The critic Maltby noted that the film's ideology was anachronistic, because its pastoral fantasies were created by urbanites, not country people, and furthermore, “idealistic solutions of populist rhetoric were apolitical precisely because they were impractical.”

The movie ignores the real conditions of agricultural production and the increasing migration of farmers to the cities. But valid as this criticism is, Vidor's humanistic idealism represented the only voice in the l930s to actually advocate cooperative farms as a radical economic alternative. Collectivist values and communal lifestyles were seldom taken seriously by Hollywood and dominant culture.

Frank Capra's benevolent solutions (in “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” and other Depression era fables) were less realistic than Vidor's, but conformed to Hollywood and dominant ideology of market capitalism (free enterprise and laissez-faire economy) and romantic individualism.

However, Vidor and Capra shared in common a deep mistrust of governmental interference in solving problems of poverty and unemployment, and a correspondingly strong belief in the puritantic ethos of hard work and self-sacrifice. Institutional authority, in the form of centralized government, planned policy and economy were rejected–in ideology and practice–in favor of good neighborliness, which took the form of communal living in Our Daily Bread, or rich benefactors helping the poor in Mr. Deeds.

While not one of Vidor's greatest films, Our Daily Bread showcases both his strengths and weaknesses. As the noted critic Andrew Sarris pointed out, Vidor's talent was intuitive and he was better in creating great moments than great films. Vidor's architectural cinema was particularly suitable for the formation of individuals against large groups.

Despite the fact that it was one of the 1930s' most radical films, “Our Daily Bread” still conforms to Hollywood conventions. First, its anti-city bias: the characterizations of the city woman and the banker were too simplistic and one-dimensional. Second, the resolution it provides is too individualistic: with all its emphasis on organized action, Tom is clearly the charismatic leader, referred to by the members as “a strong boss.”

In the same way that collectivist values stand in sharp opposition to the American capitalistic and market-oriented economy, an independent production, with strong political statements, was also not viable in Hollywood. A box-office failure, the films was rescued decades later by film critics and scholars while reexamining Vidor's career.